How to Learn More About Ancient Roman Coins (revised July 27, 2022)
I am not a beginner any more. I'd like to learn more. What do you suggest? (Skip down to the book recommendations.)
There is so much to learn! It is one of the great pleasures of ancient numismatics. The known history of every ancient coin type is extensive, but many types pose questions that remain unanswered. Professional scholars and amateurs are researching many fascinating issues that remain unresolved. Here I will help you learn how to advance from "beginner" to an "intermediate," or even "advanced," collector, but don't expect it to happen overnight!
(My website for beginners is "Ancient Roman and Greek Coins, FAQ.")
It you want to see the types of ancient coins collectors buy and what they write about them when they show them off, there are several web forums devoted to ancient coins. Coin Community Family (many beginners), CoinTalk (all levels of collectors), Numis Forums, Late Roman Bronze Coins (a narrow focus and not very many posts), and Forum (many experts and not many beginners).
What do you mean by "advanced" collector?
Advanced collectors not only have lots of coins and know what coins cost, but they also know a lot about them. They read serious books and articles. Their knowledge doubles their enjoyment and satisfaction, regardless of how many coins they own or how much they can afford to spend.
People with 100 ancient coins may not be beginners any more, but there is much more to collecting than just buying coins and knowing values. Did you realize that some universities offer Ph.D.'s in ancient numismatics? At Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia (in NYC), and several other universities students can train to become experts. Numismatics is a branch of history and scholars write books and articles about ancient coins.
So, there is a great deal of information available beyond the level of "What is it and what is it worth?" There is primary literature written by scholars making an original contribution to knowledge, and there is a great deal of secondary literature (a lot on the web) that is written by people who have read the primary literature and are summarizing it for a wider audience. To progress from novice to intermediate collector you will want to read a lot of secondary literature.
Primary literature includes articles in the major scholarly journals (such as the Numismatic Chronicle which is the journal of the Royal Numismatic Society, the American Journal of Numismatics which is the journal of the American Numismatic Society, and several other important publications in other languages) and some scholarly books.
Secondary literature includes many good books and information from websites. I have a site for beginners, and below I will mention other sites that emphasize special topics in ancient numismatics.
I see there is a long way to go. I'd just like to learn more -- not get a Ph.D.!
Right. I just wanted you to know it was not just a matter of finding the right book to buy.
I can learn a lot on the web. Can you recommend some books that would help me learn interesting things that are not on the web?
I have been collecting ancient coins for 50 years and I bought the books. I began writing these pages in 1996 so I have had a role in making the web a resource. Nevertheless, books remain essential to getting past the rank-beginner stage, although you can look up ID numbers on the web and some beginners' books don't add much to what can be learned on the web.
Here I recommend some well-written books that will add a lot to your knowledge and enjoyment of ancient coins in a way that the web cannot. This list takes into account their cost. This list does not include expensive books (except for one). Every one of these I still find worth opening and reading.
For Roman coins:
Coinage in the Roman World by Andrew Burnett is packed with information from one the world's top scholars (and, former Curator of the British Museum collection). In summary form, it incorporates all of the most recent scholarship on Roman coinage from its beginnings to the end of the empire. It has chapters on mint authority, monetary history, designs and propaganda, circulation and function, inflation, the coming of Christianity, and the transition to medieval coinage. It is only 168 pages plus plates of 187 coins, but a super book. This would be my top recommendation.
Roman Coins, by C. H. V. Sutherland, is a beautiful book by a major scholar. It has 572 excellent enlargements and even color plates of coins. There is little emphasis on common late Roman coins. He was a major contributor to our knowledge of the early imperial coins, and it shows in his choice of material. It is not a list of coins, rather a history of Roman coinage.
(For more books about Roman coins, see below)
For Greek coins:
Coinage in the Greek World by Ian Carradice and Martin Price (1998), is an excellent work, very well suited to beginners and advanced collectors alike. Written by two top scholars, it is completely authoritative. Nevertheless, it is completely user-friendly. It is not a "How to collect" guide, but a chronologically organized well-illustrated discussion of ancient Greek coins. This is an outstandingly good book. If you are thinking of collecting Greek coins, buy this book. It is easy to start with, but, no matter how far you advance, you will never outgrow it.
G. K. Jenkins Ancient Greek Coins, first edition Putnam Press (not the second edition Seaby Press). A beautiful book with lots of great pictures and good discussion. [This book changed more, and not for the better, between the first and second editions than any other book I have heard of. It went down from 320 pages to 182 pages!]
For more about Greek coins, see below.
For Roman Provincial coins:
Roman Provincial Coins: An Introduction to the Greek Imperials, by Kevin Butcher, is an excellent introduction with a great deal of "meat". It can be read again and again. A slim book, it has excellent photographs of 95 coins and 258 line drawings of coins. It has many maps so you can tell where all those cities are. I must have already read it 8 times, and scanned it many more, and I still like it. If you might be interested in Roman Provincial coins, buy this book.
For Byzantine coins:
David Sear, Byzantine Coins and their Values is essential.
Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins has all the scholarly information you could want plus 1527 good B&W photos of most of the types. I use it frequently.
P. D. Whitting, Byzantine Coins, is fun and chatty with lots of beautiful enlarged photos and good discussions.
For Roman Republican coins at a level above beginner:
Liv Mariah Yarrow, The Roman Republic to 49 BC using coins as sources and
Clare Rowan From Caesar to Augustus (c. 49 BC - AD 14) using coins as sources
(For more books on Roman Republican coins, see below)
Christopher Howgego, Ancient History from Coins, is packed with information about ancient Greek and Roman coins and how they relate to history. Howgego is a leading scholar and crams a ton of information into not very many pages (176 pages with 184 coins photographed beautifully). His extensive footnotes lead you to the publications that discuss matters in greater detail. This book is "over the head" of novices, but can be read many times with increasing comprehension. If you want to glimpse the scholarly side of ancient coins, this is a great way to do it.
My recommendations are not done! Keep reading!
There are many more good books that can add to your knowledge and enjoyment in ways the internet cannot (some discussed next), but, in your collecting area, these would be a good start.
I remark that university libraries usually have some books on ancient coins and even some public libraries do too. The odds are very good they will not be checked out!
How do I go from owning a book or two to the next level?
Most people who buy Roman coins (I'll write about Greek coins below) want a good reference book so they can look up coins and find their values and an ID number. I'll address this first, even though it is hardly "learning" to simply look up the ID number of a coin.
If you already have the Sear or Vagi price guides, skip ahead past this elementary discussion of price guides.
The "complete" references to Roman coins are huge and very expensive. Most collectors settle for a representative list of types in a "coins and their values" type of book. There are two major collector's works in English that list Roman coin types.
David Sear, Roman Coins and Their Values, has been the standard for many years. It used to be in one volume and that is still very useful. But, it has now been expanded to five volumes which are not complete, but have almost all the coins you will see and they has something similar to most of the rest. There is a "Millennium" edition (2000) for the Republic through the twelve caesars. Coins from AD 96 (Nerva) to AD 235 (the end of the Severans) are in volume 2. Coins from 235 (Maximinus Thrax) to 285 (Carinus) are in volume 3. Volume IV covers 284 (Diocletian) to 337 (the death of Constantine). Volume V covers AD 337-491. This work is expensive (c. $65 per volume), but it is quite thorough. It has good introductory material, and numerous short paragraphs on the import of various coin types. I highly recommend this series, especially volume 1 (which covers all the Republic very conveniently as well as the twelve Caesars).
If you don't want to spend that much, the earlier single-volume version is very useful and much cheaper. It went through several editions, all with the same listings except for the prices and changing from line-drawings to photos after the second edition. Believe it or not, I still love my second edition (1974!) and use it even though it came out in a fourth edition too (which, because of demand, was reprinted in 2004 at about $70). The single-volume editions are far less complete than the new five-volume edition, but worthwhile and available at about $35.
David L. Vagi, Coinage and History of the Roman Empire (1999) is a thick and heavy two-volume work, formerly costing c. $70 and now more. One volume is on the history. That is probably the most convenient place to get the story of the emperors. I can remember when collectors regularly commented that they wanted to know much more about the emperors than they could find in Sear's book. This book has a big volume on the history, so their wants have been fulfilled. The other volume is on the coins, and it has a ton of information. It has 180 pages of notes on types, condition, and other things that affect coin values, even before the list of coins and their values! The notes are worth reading again and again. (Beginners may find them too advanced to understand fully.)
Then there are another 440 pages listing coins and their values. Wow!
The one objection that many people have is that the list makes no attempt to be comprehensive for the common types. If you buy, say, a coin of Probus, most reverse types are of similar value and only relatively few have special interest that promotes their value to a higher level. Vagi acknowledges this and lumps all common coins of the same ruler denomination under a single reference number. So your coin is likely not to have a distinct "Vagi number." Only especially interesting types get separate numbers. This is frustrating for those who just want a reference number for their coins! (I think that is a substantial majority of collectors. By reading this page, you are showing an interest in moving beyond simply giving coins a number.)
Nevertheless, I recommend this work if you want to learn about coins and history.
So, which of those is better?
They both have advantages. But I think you will want Sear if you stick with collecting, and Vagi has more information that will help you learn about coins.
What about RIC and BMC?
RIC and BMC are the two nearly-complete references for Roman imperial coins. They are the ultimate lists of Roman imperial coins. Furthermore, they are the "last word" short of more-recent articles. Advanced collectors have at least the volumes for the time period they are interested in.
RIC (pronounced as three letters, "R-I-C") stands for Roman Imperial Coinage. Published in 10 volumes (13 books), it is a massive work (17 inches of shelf space!) that is the only (very nearly) complete list of Roman imperial coins. It does not include Roman Republican coins. Each volume has a long discussion of the history of coinage of the period. If you have a Roman imperial coin, it is almost certain to be somewhere in RIC, with a date as close as possible. Although it has quite a few photographs, it is very far from fully illustrated. Published over a span of 70 years (!), some volumes are showing their age. Volumes I (to AD 69), II.1 (69-96 AD, the Flavians), VIII (sons of Constantine), and X (post Theodosius) are very up to date, and there is no easy way to find anything better for the period 238-337 AD, but BMC is better for the period 96-238 AD. Needless to say, it is very expensive.
BMC (pronounced as three letters, "B-M-C" or "BMC Roman") stands for British Museum Catalog which abbreviates Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum. There is a series for Roman imperial coins (as well as others for Greek and Republican coins) in six volumes (in 8 thick books) -- another 17 inches of shelf space! It quits at 238 AD and will never be continued to cover the Gordians or later emperors.
BMC is much preferable to RIC for the period 138-238. (RIC I (to 69 AD) and II.1 (Flavians) and II.3 (Hadrian) are up-to-date and thorough). For the others, BMC is better because it is newer, has much more discussion of the history and types, and has almost complete photographic coverage of the types. If you want ID numbers, notes, and photos, BMC is the catalog for you. Needless to say, it is very expensive.
What about ERIC II?
[Forgive this long review. You may skip it.] The Encyclopedia of Roman Imperial Coins, second edition, known as ERIC II, by Rasiel Suarez, is a beautiful and massive 1455-page book that lists virtually every Roman imperial coin type beginning with Augustus. Perhaps unexpected from the title is that even the later Roman coins normally called "Byzantine" are included in the last 200 pages. It is massive and expensive in paper, but the author has released in as a pdf. Do not buy the first edition ERIC--if you want one be sure to get ERIC II, which is far more complete. (I think ERIC III is in the works, but it may be a long time coming.) ERIC II has been made available as a free pdf by the author. It is a 67 mb zip file. You can look for it on the web.
It is not a price guide. Types are all described by one small-print line without comment on their historical interest or individual value. Each ruler (or empress, or other relative) is introduced with a short history of his reign and a note on how common or rare his coins are in general, including a rank among the 207 Roman imperial (not including Byzantine) people from most common (Constantine) to rarest (Silbannicus) and a brief comment on typical costs.
The arrangement of the list with over 50,000 entries is necessarily concise. For each emperor all his obverse bust types are listed and given codes as B01, B02, etc. Most are illustrated with a gorgeous image. Then all possible obverse legends are listed and coded -- O01, O02, etc. and all reverse legends are listed and coded R01, R02, etc. All reverse types are listed and coded with T01, T02, etc. and many, including all the common ones, are illustrated, again in color with one side of an excellent example. If more than one mint was issuing coins, a mint code is added, prefixed with M. Types are grouped by denomination and each type gets a single line with a type number among the types of that emperor which includes a date range and RIC and Cohen references. A line describing type #213 of Trajan (a denarius) looks like this:
213) B05, O18, R040, T038, M2 98-99 RIC II 3 C 211
There is a broad gap between the codes and the dates than is, in a small fraction of the cases, filled with additional details of the reverse type such as lettering across the field. The dating is more precise than just the dates of the reign.
Compiling all this information was an unbelievable amount of work. I am really surprised any one person did it!
Color is used very well to color-code part of the outer edges of the pages associated with each emperor, making it easy to identify and turn to pages of coins of a particular emperor.
The illustrations are all of only one side of a coin and all about the same size -- about an inch and an eighth, which is a nice enlargement for most types.
Overall, it is unparalleled as a single-volume list of ancient Roman coins. It does not resemble Vagi's two-volume book because ERIC's history is far less, its list of types is many times as extensive, and it has no prices. Sear's five-volume price-guide series lists the vast majority of types one will encounter, with reverse types listed by legend, not in code, and with individual valuations and occasional very short historical comments. Sear's "Byzantine Coins and Their Values" would be a sixth volume, which stands alone and is excellent for Byzantine coins.
Can you recommend ancient Roman coin books that are not price guides?
Yes. I gave my favorites above. Here are some excellent books designed to take you from novice to serious student of ancient coins.
Many collectors want to know about the role of coins in the economy. What were they worth? What about taxes? How much did the government spend? Coinage in the Roman Economy, 300 BC to AD 700, by Kenneth Harl, has 500 pages of answers to questions like these, and excellent photographs of 267 important coin types. He has gathered together in one volume the results of a large number of research articles and incorporated them into a single, flowing, account. This book is very informative. I have some criticisms of details, but no work of this scope could avoid controversy. (In particular, I think his discussion of the denominations of the coins AD270 - 310 is too assertive. There are many dissenting opinions that he fails to represent.) However, this book will give you a good idea of the complexity of the subject and what the evidence looks like. It is very scholarly and not for beginners, but it is highly recommended.
Richard Reece, Coinage in Roman Britain, is written by a top English scholar. In the same series as the Burnett book, it goes into detail about what is found in Britain. It has chapters on production, coins in Britain, use of coins, hoards, site-finds, supply and circulation, and more. Only 144 pages with pictures of 44 coins and many graphs, it will nevertheless tell you a great deal about coins in Roman times.
A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins by John Melville Jones explains the terms you will see in conjunction with coins. Who is "Fortuna"? What is the history of the "sestertius"? It's in there. A very good book.
Coins and the Archaeologist, edited by John Casey and Richard Reece, is a collection of 14 scholarly articles on coinage with emphasis on coins from Roman Britain. It also has the finest single article on ancient imitations (87 pages on imitations and 165 coins pictured!). It has articles on Romano-British hoards, interpretation of site finds, numerical aspects of hoards, dating, interpreting coin finds, and more. This, too, may be "over the head" of the novice.
Roman Coins, by Harold Mattingly, was the finest book of its kind for many years. Mattingly was the most prominent scholar of Roman coins at the time, and he initiated and edited the first volumes of RIC. The first edition of Roman Coins was published in 1928 and the second (and last) edition was published in 1960. It has 64 plates of Roman coins, organized by theme rather than by emperor. It is not a list of coins by any means, rather a serious scholarly discussion of financial administration, chronology and mints, types (arranged by principle, not date), coinage and life, provincial coinage, reforms, etc. It is very informative and well worth reading, but it is definitely not a list of coins you can cite. It is not for the beginner because the organization is based on general principles that become apparent only after you have seen a lot of Roman coins. I do not recommend this be one of the first books you buy.
Roman Coins, by J. P. C. Kent and Max and Albert Hirmer is a spectacular coffee-table book with excellent commentary besides. It illustrates, with truly superb photographs, 785 of the finest Roman coins known. Kent was Curator of Coins in the British Museum and wrote a very good summary of the history of Roman coinage, but it is hard to tear your eyes away from the photographs! Expensive, but worth it if you can afford it.
Portraits: 500 Years of Roman Coin Portraits, second edition [the first omitted the reverses], by Andreas Pangerl, is an even more spectacular coffee-table book with totally gorgeous color photographs of some of the finest extant ancient coins. It is massive. It has 793 coins illustrated with the finest photography you have ever seen. It has 170 pages of well-illustrated essays on portraiture at the back (some in German). It emphasizes portraits which are all photographed substantially enlarged with all the reverses together at the end and only somewhat enlarged. The bulk of the book (the non-essay part) has no commentary, rather it has short identifications of the coin and photos 4" across. As of July 2022 it is hand to find and about $130 used.
Many collectors enjoy A Dictionary of Roman Coins by Seth Stevenson. A massive 929-page work published in 1889 (but mostly written c. 1850), it has been reprinted and is not hard to find. It has a quaint 19th century style more than compensated for by its extremely thorough listing of types, legends, attributes, and any other term that might come up in conjunction with Roman coins. Melville-Jones's dictionary, mentioned above, does not attempt to list legends and is more up to date, but Stevenson's book is undoubtedly fun to read.
Those of us who like late Roman bronze of the tetrarchy and Constantinian period like Victor Failmezger's Roman Bronze Coins: From Pagnism to Christianity, 294-364 AD, with a comprehensive listing and 42 color page plates illustrating over 600 coins. I love the list and photos best, but there is tons of additional information about history, mints, field marks, legends translated, details of commonly-collected types, etc. Highly recommended.
What about Ancient Coin Collecting Vol. III: The Roman World - Politics and Propaganda, by Wayne Sayles?
It is the most available introductory book, but I don't think it is organized to make it easy to understand Roman coins. Also, I don't like the use of so many photos of only the portrait side of the coin. The fascinating reverses are almost entirely neglected. Coins have two sides and beginners need to see what reverses look like and how meaningful they can be. However, this webpage is designed to discuss higher-level books to buy after you have read a book like that one. I think of it as a beginner's book, not intended for collectors who are already knowledgeable. Neither is Klawans book, Reading and Dating Roman Imperial Coins, recently reprinted as the Roman half of Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins. That is a good beginners book (and I began with it), but it has no pretense to scholarship.
By the way, I like the Sayles book Ancient Coin Collecting V, The Romaion/Byzantine Culture. His book, Ancient Coin Collecting VI, non-Classical Cultures, is by far the best introduction to all the other coin-producing states of antiquity (Parthian, Sasanian, Turkoman, Hun, and many more).
What are some Republican coin references?
The 2000 "Millennium" edition of Sear's Roman Coins and Their Values, volume 1, has virtually complete list of Republican types. Also, many types are explained in short paragraphs. This is in contrast to previous editions in which explanation was sparse. Nevertheless, the book is still primarily a list, although you will learn so much from it that you should own it. I highly recommend this book in the "Millennium" edition.
Roman Silver Coins, I, Republic to Augustus, (originally) by H. A. Seaby, in the Seaby series and revised by David Sear and Robert Loosely, is a (virtually) complete one-volume list of Roman Republican silver (but not AE or gold) coins. It is organized by moneyer's "family," not chronologically, but there are all in there with values, and most coins you could buy have excellent photographs. Is has recently been reprinted and I have seen it new for $46. It will only give you an ID number for your coin and occasionally tell you one line (not more) about a type. I recommend it if you want to concentrate on Republican coins. I find it very useful when someone cites a Republican coin by family name but not the date or Crawford number (This happens more often than it should, but coins bought long ago are often identified this way.)
If you want the best, your choice is clear. Roman Republican Coinage by Michael Crawford is the standard reference. A huge 2-volume work, it would have cost you $400 or more in 2015, but it has been reprinted in cardcover for about $100. It is well worth it. It has most of what there is to know about Republican coins. It is both a complete list with type numbers, and an extensive discussion of everything relating to Republican coins, often in great depth. Beginners will use the reference numbers and gradually learn that the rest is extremely valuable and fascinating. By the way, Crawford omitted most of the amusing anecdotes about the moneyers because they were already published in BMC Roman Republican by Grueber. For another $250 or so you can get the stories in 3-volume very old book with outdated dating of the issues.
The Coinage of the Roman Republic, by Sydenham, was written long ago but is still available in reprint (with reduced size, so the photographs are all too small!). It is outdated, with important dates we now know to be wrong. Skip it.
If your interest is in the imperators (during the transition from the Republic to the empire) you are in luck. David Sear has written The History and Coinage of the Roman Imperators 49 BC - 27 BC, which is about as complete as you could ever wish for. If you want to know a lot about your coins and the time period, this is the last word, and it includes a price guide too. It costs about $95 and is well worth it.
If your Republican coin was minted between 63 and 49 BC, there is a good work by Michael Harlan, Roman Republican Moneyers and Their Coins, 63 BC - 49 BC, which tells the entire story of each type (up to five pages on a single type!) and as much as is known about the moneyers. The editors did not organize the pictures well, but the types are illustrated. It is a pity that the rest of the Republican series does not have such excellent sources as these last two. Harlen recently (2012) self-published a companion volume, Roman Republican Moneyers and Their Coins, 81 BCE - 64 BCE, and did a much better job than Seaby at illustrating the types. If you have any Republican coins from that time period it is an excellent book.
The early huge bronze issues are listed and illustrated in Bradbury Thurlow's Italian Cast Coinage, Italian Aes Grave (printed together with Italo Vecchi's Italian Aes Rude, Signatum and the Aes Grave of Sicily). It has 34 pages of discussion and even lists the numbers of examples of each known at one time. It is an advanced book.
If you like the late Republic, but not just Republican coins, Crawford's Coinage and Money under the Roman Republic is an amazing work of scholarship that chronicles, in every geographical region, the transition from coins before the Romans to Republican coinage. All those tiny kingdoms are discussed. It has some assertions that may need correction in detail, but it certainly is a good series of articles on the period. Unfortunately, although there are many photos, most are poor photos of casts and not well identified. I happen to love this book, but it is certainly not for beginners!
I am cleaning coins and trying to identify them. Is there a good book for me to learn identification skills?
Yes, if you are identifying late Roman bronzes. Here is a page recommending book by Guido Bruck which is sometimes offered on German eBay. Now its ideas have been put on the web at "Identifying Late Roman Bronze Coins:" http://www.tesorillo.com/aes/home.htm
What about Greek coins?
The subject of of Greek coins is far more complicated than Roman coins. There are more than 500 cities that minted coins in the Greek world, and many kingdoms and dynasties that are treated as "Greek" merely because they were not Roman.
Collecting Greek Coins by John Anthony is a well-illustrated and inexpensive introduction. It is not a price guide, and not quite a "how to collect" book either, but it discusses the coins of the most prominent city-states (Athens, Corinth, Syracuse, etc.), the Hellenistic Kingdoms, the East, and has a chapter on thematic collecting. I recommend it.
An Outline of Ancient Greek Coins by Zander Klawans is a 1982 book with lots of information, but not as expository as the Anthony book. It really is more of an "outline" with one coin of each of many cities illustrated and about 35 pages of basic introduction. This is a very basic book. I recommend it.
Ancient Coin Collecting II: Numismatic Art of the Greek World, by Wayne Sayles (1997), is probably the most available introduction, but I don't think it is easy to begin Greek coins by reading that book. It has many photographs of top pieces. Among other things, I don't like the way so many coins are illustrated with only the obverse photo.
Collecting Ancient Greek Coins: A Guided Tour featuring 25 Significant types, by Paul Rynearson. This is a far better book than I expected. This book has a misleading title. It is better than the title suggests because it discusses far more than 25 "types". By the usual use of the word "types" he discusses 180 types. For example, he calls coins of Alexander the Great one type, but discusses eight coins with significant differences within that one "type."
Rynearson makes numerous observations about quality that most books don't mention. His comments are not just about the type of coin but about the particular coin he has illustrated (in color, with excellent larger than life size photos). His comments about style and surfaces should be of interest to anyone collecting very high quality coins. I think it is a little like having an experienced expert at your side telling you how to evaluate a high-quality artistic coin.
At the back he has one side of each of the coins illustrated again, life size, so you can get a feeling for their sizes (each large photo has the size in mm, but collectors might appreciate seeing the actual sizes).
It is a very good book if you can find it for a low price, but I just searched for it (Sept. 2021) and found amazingly high prices. I got my copy on eBay for much less than the $35 I'm seeing as the lowest price on eBay or Amazon or AddAll.
Greek Coins, by Ian Carradice (1995) is an excellent slim (112 pages) introduction to the most important Greek precious metal coins with many excellent B&W illustrations. It tracks the history of the coins as changes occur in the Greek world. If you want to see what a superb and representative collection of Greek silver would look like, this could show you the ideal. It is written by a serious scholar for serious students and has no advice about collecting. If I just wanted to show someone what Greek coins are like and how they fit into the ancient world, I'd buy them this book. (It is about $20 from the David Brown Book Company.)
Are you only going to recommend books?
No, I am going to recommend articles and websites (below), and here I want to mention sale catalogs. Dealers put lots of effort into making catalogs entertaining, and you can learn a great deal by reading sale catalogs and examining their pictures of coins. For example, a prominent US firm is CNG (Classical Numismatic Group). They have published over 100 fine auction catalogs, the recent ones with over 2000 coins described and photographed. A single CNG catalog has far more photographs than most $100 books! And, you would learn a lot about whole series of coins that are not in your chosen area. What a great way to expand your horizons!
There are several other high-quality auction firms in the US and especially Europe that publish auction sale catalogs. I think their reference value exceeds their actual cost. But, beginners seem to want to find their own coins in some list so they can give their coins ID numbers. Sale catalogs will have a wide and fascinating selection of coins, but they won't serve as a comprehensive list. However, if you advance beyond the "list" stage of collecting, you might want to own some sale catalogs. I started to buy back issues of important sale catalogs after I got a few of the major reference books.
Are there other books on Roman coins you would recommend?
Yes. Here are a few.
Coins of the Roman Empire, by R. A. G. Carson, is a very thorough chronological discussion of of coinage history under the empire, plus an extensive discussion of coin output and mint techniques. But it is not a pleasure to read because it is primarily a list of details strung end-to-end without a clarifying overview. It has good photos of 980 coins. Originally about $200 in a boxed volume, now it seems to go for less when it can be found.
Roman History from Coins, by Michael Grant, is a small book with a neat theme. In 92 pages and 32 page plates he discusses coins that can be connected to history. Many authors have questioned his (over)emphasis on Roman anniversaries, but for those of us that like to see the relationship between coins and history, this is a good place to start.
Roman Historical Coins, by Clive Foss, is a long list of almost every Roman coin that can be directly connected to some event. It has over 300 pages of very concise entries! But, that does not leave much room to discuss individual issues, so the format is to give a short history of each emperor, citing the numbers of types that correspond to the events mentioned. I like the idea, but I can't say it is a book to read -- it is primarily a book to consult.
If your interest is in the twelve Caesars (Julius Caesar - Domitian), Sutherland wrote two similar books on their coins, Coinage in Roman Imperial Policy (1951) and The Emperor and the Coinage (1976). These are two good works intended for scholars (not really for collectors), but advanced collectors will find them interesting.
My favorite introduction to Roman imperial coins is virtually unavailable, but I can't resist mentioning it. John Fox's Roman Coins and How to Collect Them is a pure delight. A teacher on a low budget in England, he tells many fascinating stories about collecting. It is very well-illustrated by hundreds of photos of (mostly low grade) coins he bought or traded for at coin shows. Unlike any other coin book, most of the coins are identified not only by emperor and type, but also by when, and for how much, he bought them, for example "2 pounds, 1979". I read it six times in the first two years I owned it, and reread the whole thing with great pleasure recently. If you collect only high grade coins, you will still love his style and stories. If you collect purely for the interest of the coins, regardless of grade, this book is up your alley! I wish it were in print!
I'm interested in "Greek imperial" coins.
Greek imperials (so named for the Greek legends on coins minted in Roman imperial times) are beginning to be better known as "Roman Provincial."
This is a huge and difficult, but very interesting, subject. No one book will get you very far.
Greek Imperial Coins and Their Values by David Sear (Sear again!) is the only one-volume list-style reference. It lists 6000 coins and has many pages of helpful notes, but the great majority of Greek imperial coins you buy will not be exactly in there. The field is too vast to be well-covered by a list of only 6000 types! But it is a very good book within that limitation.
Ancient Coin Collecting IV: Roman Provincial Coins, by Wayne Sayles, is an attractive beginner's book. It will give you some picture of what is out there in the field. The illustrations are of very high grade coins that are quite exceptional. This is unfortunate, because collectors will find that it is almost impossible to collect coins like those. It is an okay place to begin, but you could begin with Butcher's fine work which is better and will take you further into this complex field.
If you would like to know more about the cities in which your Roman provincial coins were minted, I recommend Michael Grant's A Guide to the Ancient World which is a 728-page alphabetical listing of ancient cities and facts about them. It has recently been reprinted by Barnes and Noble, so it is not as expensive as such a massive work might be.
What about other books?
Dennis Kroh wrote a survey of books on ancient coins, Ancient Coin Reference Reviews, with each book evaluated (and given 0 to 5 stars) and priced. This useful book costs about $25.
Books and more books! You mentioned articles.
Yes, I did. Many collectors subscribed to the monthly ancient coin journal, The Celator, which each month had a few articles written by advanced collectors for other collectors, as well as a large number of market reports and dealer ads. Any given month there may have been nothing to interest you, but more articles kept appearing and some you would find very interesting. Here is an index of its articles from 1988 to 1998 (Look for topics that interest you.) The issues themselves are all archived here on the web.
If you can get to a major library, you might find the Numismatic Chronicle or the American Journal of Numismatics and scan the contents for articles of interest. Many of my friends and I belong to the Royal Numismatic Society and the American Numismatic Society and these journals are the primary benefits of membership. Old issues are readily available and in many large university libraries.
What about articles on the web?
There are many good ones. I list some below, but first here are some thoughts.
The best ancient coin sites on the web for serious learning about Roman coins are those written by Doug Smith. He has posted over 100 excellent articles on everything from how to grade coins and a glossary of terms, to detailed articles on particular coins. Wow! I love his work. Some of his articles are on basic things every collector needs to know, and others are pretty sophisticated discussions of particular fascinating coins or coin types that you may not care much about (until you own one!). His sites on at the top of my annotated list of sites. Keep in mind I have not indexed his sites, so look over his tables of contents too.
My annotated list of sites is here.
I'm interested in ancient imitations - fourres, etc. Where can I learn about them?
I have written a web page about scholarly articles on ancient imitations and a site on Ancient Imitations of Roman Coins.
If I want to do real research, where can I start?
At the advanced level, the ANS (American Numismatic Society) has an indexed list of (almost) all serious published articles on ancient coins on line at
You can search for just about any thing, for example, emperor "Hadrian", and see the titles and abstracts of articles that mention "Hadrian" somewhere in the abstract. This is not an easy approach, though, because you will find far too much material at a very detailed level. It is more for going from "intermediate" to "advanced" collector.
Where can I buy these books you recommend?
The toughest question! Some are still in print and available from major ancient coin dealers. The best place to begin is with the dealers at vcoins.com . Sometimes eBay has good ancient-coin books at very good prices. I've had a lot of luck there. You can try my ancient-coin literature site: http://augustuscoins.com/numislit.html . You can try Amazon or ABEbooks. But many books are out of print and hard to find. You will find that good books retain their value as well as or even better than good coins!
I hope this site has been of some use to you.
-- Warren Esty
e-mail me at:
Note well: Please do not ask me to answer your research questions individually (I have a life!). However, if you wish me to review a certain Roman coin book, write and tell me and I may add a review of it to this site.
Posted 6/26/2000. Revised many times since then. Revised 7/24/2018 and 10/5/19 and 6/15/2022.
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